Hybrid buses ready to roll

If first 10 vehicles perform, MTA could replace all diesels

September 19, 2005|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun reporter

The Maryland Transit Administration might have bought its last conventional diesel-powered bus.

Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan, who recently approved the purchase of 10 hybrid electric buses for MTA's use, said that if the 10 buses operate as well as he expects them to, he hopes to replace all of the buses in the state's 600-vehicle fleet.

"I would hope that by the end of the decade, we could be a predominantly hybrid electric fleet," he said. "If our experience with the hybrids is what I expect it to be, I don't expect that we will be buying conventional diesel buses anymore."

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's Maryland section incorrectly described how the Maryland Transit Administration's recently acquired New Flyer hybrid electric buses operate. They are powered in part not by an electric fuel cell, but by an electric battery.
The Sun regrets the errors.

Flanagan returned from a trip to Seattle enthusiastic about the hybrid electric buses he rode there.

"They are a huge improvement. They are much quieter, cleaner, more reliable. We can expect 40 percent improvement in fuel efficiency, which is very timely with increasing fuel costs," he said.

Seattle transit authorities tested the hybrid buses, which are powered by a combination of an electric fuel cell and diesel, for two years before deciding to convert its fleet, Flanagan said. He said he doubted it would take two years of testing for the state's mass-transit system serving the Baltimore area, adding that the MTA should be able to map out plans for an all-hybrid fleet by the end of next year.

Acquisition of the hybrid buses could also pave the way for another project Flanagan finds intriguing: construction of a tunnel under downtown Baltimore dedicated to carrying bus traffic as part of the proposed east-west Red Line transit route.

Conventional buses can't be used in such tunnels because of their emissions, he said, but the hybrids reduce the pollutants to a level that buses could operate in a confined space.

Flanagan emphasized that he has not made a decision in favor of a tunnel, which would be part of a Bus Rapid Transit system featuring dedicated bus lanes. The MTA is studying options for the Red Line, and many city leaders favor a rail alternative over buses.

Nevertheless, Flanagan said he was impressed by the bus tunnel in Seattle.

"It's fair to say that I'm excited about what I'm seeing about the capability of hybrid buses, about the operational capabilities of a bus tunnel, customer acceptance of a bus tunnel in Seattle," he said.

Flanagan said a bus tunnel could be built under downtown from about Central Avenue in the east to Martin Luther King Boulevard - between 2 and 2 1/2 miles - with underground stops that would connect with surface streets. He said the cost would be about $200 million a mile.

Flanagan said the MTA's hybrid buses from New Flyer cost about $600,000 each - about $200,000 more than conventional buses. He estimated that an all-hybrid fleet of 600 buses could save about $6 million of the MTA's current fuel budget of $15.1 million, a figure that has shot up within the past six months.

"Those buses pay for themselves in fuel efficiency," he said.

Flanagan added that Seattle's experience shows that the hybrids are more reliable than conventional buses, needing service every 7,000 miles on average compared with 5,600 miles for the MTA fleet.

MTA's acquisition of the hybrids would likely receive broad support in the General Assembly, a leading lawmaker said.

Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, chairwoman of the House Environmental Matters Committee, said she, too, had recently visited Seattle and was impressed by the vehicles.

"They're terrific. A lot of progressive cities are now converting," the Baltimore Democrat said.

But McIntosh said the idea of a bus tunnel as part of the Red Line would likely run into resistance - from herself and from other city legislators.

"I'd rather see something not bus, but more like a rail system," she said. "We've always looked for a rail system, whether it be heavy rail or light rail."

Dan Pontious, policy director of the Citizens Planning and Housing Association, said a bus tunnel is worth considering, along with other choices. But he said MTA's planning process should go forward without pressure from Flanagan.

"I hope he's not prejudging the study. MTA needs to look at all kinds of options," he said.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

Cost comparison

A hybrid bus, powered by a combination of an electric fuel cell and diesel, costs about $600,000, compared with about $400,000 for a conventional diesel bus.

An all-hybrid fleet of 600 buses could save MTA about $6 million in fuel a year.

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